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William Goldman, that famous screenwriter, once said that real life was allowed to be far more absurd than fiction. He is correct.
For example, let's say there was a movie about an fifty-six-year-old trucker who had, up until now, not taken any chances with his life savings. A late-night infomercial from a talk show host, however, convinces him to invest everything he has in the future of cell phones. He doesn't really understand cell phones, but his gut says to go for it. He remortgages his house to get $37,000, invests the money... And he wins the license for the cell phone market in Manchester, New Hampshire.
He's happy, but then it's explained to him: Although he has no experience whatsoever in the communications industry - he doesn't even know how a cell phone works, or why they're called "cell phones" - and has invested pretty much all of his current finances in just getting the license, he is now obligated to have a fully-functional cell phone company up and running in the next six months. A company that should, for all intents and purposes, be able to go head-to-head with AT&T.
Yes, this happened... But no movie studio would touch it. Who would ever believe it? Yet this is why Wireless Nation is that Holy Grail of business books: It is a reference book that reads like a novel. More specifically, a John Irving novel, filled with vibrant and eccentric characters, mad twists of plot, and downright funny stories that will make you laugh out loud.
The early days of the cellular phone industry were wild and chaotic. These days, most people have a cell phone, and some folks - almost 5% of the market - have traded their home phone for a full-time cell connection. But back in 1983, cell phones were affectionately called "the brick"; they weighed five pounds, had an hour-long battery time, required a pigtail antenna on your car, and you couldn't get reception anywhere outside of the major cities.
Furthermore, establishing a cell phone infrastructure was sure to be costly; you'd have to fund thousands of nationwide phone services, which would be in competition with all of the other cell phone companies. Was it worth hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in the future?
And then there was the FCC.
Cell phones required cell frequencies, much like television channels - and years before anyone outside of ham radio enthusiasts was using cell phones, the FCC realized that this unused spectrum was going to be valuable. The FCC first decided to allow anyone to apply for a shot at these frequencies, parceling them out on a city-by-city basis, but they forgot one very important thing: They didn't specify any requirements. As a result, any idiot could apply for the frequencies - and thousands did, under the assumption that even if they were flat broke when they applied, if they won the license they could get funding from the banks because they owned the frequency for Chicago.
Ultimately, the FCC was so terminally incompetent at deciding how to hand out these frequencies that it created a whole industry dedicated to making profits off the FCC's loopholes. When they got swamped with too many applications to handle, the FCC abandoned rational thought entirely and started handing out frequencies based on a lottery - which encouraged even more people to apply...
The race to these frequencies is a vastly entertaining story, packed to the brim with smart people making bold business movies - some pan out, while others fail horribly. Furthermore, James Murray has an uncanny eye for the little tidbits that make a story interesting. Lesser authors could bury you in a blizzard of details, but he manages to find the right notes that make the key players come alive. There are at least fifteen major players throughout the book, but each comes across as clear and distinct as notes sounded on a piano.
There is the visionary-but-psychotic Craig McCaw, who made billions after snapping up frequency licenses at then-unthinkable prices, but serenaded a business luncheon with how skull-embedded chips would soon enable a technological telepathy and seriously requested that the FCC reserve telepathic brainwave frequencies now.
There's Barry Yampol, the scrappy entrepreneur who first figured out that lack of cash was no impediment to applying for frequencies and thus was the only man to apply in all major markets... But wound up the object of everyone's hatred because he had dared to think outside the box.
There's John Kluge, the German entrepreneur who negotiated a $56 million purchase in twenty seconds with a handshake, having decided that at sixty-five years old, he had one more industry to dominate... And cell phones were it.
And of course, there's Bob Pelissier, the truck driver who won the contract, then turned down a $250,000 offer that same afternoon, reasoning, "Well, if they'd pay that much for it now, how much would it really be worth?"
It's impossible to predict where it all winds up, as infomercials' inflated promises turn out to be true beyond anyone's wildest dreams, as fortunes are made on the backs of FCC applications and telecommunications companies pour billions of dollars into frequency bids, all trying to see who flinches first in a high-stakes game of chicken....
The book is a fascinating read, and essential for anyone who wants to understand how the highest levels of business work. If you really want to see what business savvy and chutzpah really means, you must read this book.
Then call your friends. You'll not only want to tell them about Wireless Nation, but you'll appreciate everything people did to make sure you could call them on your cell phone.